Pictograph Cave State Park area and its caves,
or rock overhangs, were once the living quarters of prehistoric hunters and gatherers. The lush and fertile valley of the Yellowstone River was a travel corridor for ancient cultures, just as it is today. The southern exposure of the caves provided shelter from the weather and effectively caught the afternoon warmth from the sun. A nearby spring provided a supply of clear, cold water. It was the utopia of all campsites - abundant food, plenty of water, and excellent shelter. The caves were formed by erosion - the process of weathering by wind, water, and temperature around large boulder-like concretions. Large, V-shaped drainages above each of the three caves are stained black because of minerals washed over them during seasonal rainstorms and snowmelt. Water runs over the drainages and helps to carve out the existing caves. Some of the moisture seeps under the overhang, through cracks or rock layers, and gradually erodes the sandstone at the rear of each cave. This process is especially evident in Middle Cave. The cave size increases over time, as rock from the cave ceiling and walls falls onto the cave floor. Items left behind by inhabitants are gradually covered over and preserved.
Many generations of Plains peoples used the Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost Cave complex as a resting spot, leaving behind objects and painted images, or pictographs, from their daily lives. These pictographs and artifacts are remnants of past cultures, highly significant to furthering our understanding of Montana's human history. ... Walk a 1/3 mile, gentle grade trail through the park that people occupied for thousands of years. View the prehistoric rock paintings at Pictograph Cave, the largest of the three caves. The trail to Ghost Cave is steep and may have spots of loose gravel. Pictograph Cave State Park is a Designated National Historic Landmark, a distinction given because of its major archaeological significance.
The geological evolution of these cliffs began approximately 136 million years ago. During the Cretaceous Period, a shallow arm of the Pacific Ocean extended into this area. Continued shifting of the continent resulted in a recession of the shorelines, as ocean currents and tides formed beaches along the raised areas. These shoreline areas were deposits of sand and ocean mud. Through geologic time and the effects of extensive erosion, the resulting 250-300 foot deposits of Eagle sandstone made the unique geological formation known as the "rimrocks." Evidence of the prehistoric ocean can be viewed in the ceiling of Middle Cave, where a large, fossilized clam shell is preserved. And damnitall! Wish I'd known about the clam shell BEFORE I went to Middle Cave.
A Home Near the Caves For thousands of years, people visiting this area used Pictograph Cave and Ghost Cave as natural shelters. However, people also lived nearby in man-made structures such as brush shelters and hide-covered lodges. These types of houses were used prior to the horse being introduced to North America. With horses came increased mobility and the teepee became the shelter of choice. During the excavations at Pictograph Cave, archaeologists dug test pits on the flats below the caves in this little valley they called Empty Gulch. The archaeologists wanted to compare layers of dirt in Empty Gulch to the layers of dirt in the caves. They unexpectedly found a wealth of artifacts, including over a thousand pottery fragments, projectile points, buffalo bones, and a house site about 250 feet south of the cave. What did the house look like? Archaeologists found 15 post holes arranged in a large oval. The holes were filled with the remnants of decayed wood from posts used to support the house structure. How did they know it was a house? One important clue that this was a house was the discovery of a hearth inside the ring of post holes. A hearth is a fireplace used for heating and cooking. When people burn a fire in the same place for a long time, it leaves behind fire remnants, such as charcoal, which help archaeologists identify a hearth.
Pictograph Cave. Pictographs are painted images. They differ from petroglyphs which are carved or pecked into the rock surface. Both pictographs and petroglyphs are referred to as rock art. Pigments used for paint included berry and plant juices, charcoal and earth pigments. Binders like animal fat, eggs, and blood were added to the pigments. Not only were the caves used as living areas, but the protected rock walls were also used to record meaningful events and spiritual topics. Although it was long believed that pictographs were painted primarily to record important events, brave deeds, or successful hunts, more recent theory suggests that many were probably placed on the rock as a way to gain special favors and powers from the spirits. The archaeological excavation at Pictograph Cave was one of the most significant ever undertaken in Montana. Archaeologists and Works Progress Administration crews excavated within both Pictograph and Ghost Caves, between 1937 and 1941. The black broken line on the back wall in Pictograph Cave represents the floor level prior to excavation, while the red line in Ghost Cave represents its pre-excavation floor level. Over 30,000 artifacts were discovered in the sifted deposits. Among the finds were bones from mammals and birds, sleeping mats, baskets, a variety of worked stone arrow and spear points, stone and bone tools, and worked shell. The artifacts were uncovered in a series of horizontal layers, meaning that the area was occupied during different periods in the past, beginning about 4500 years ago. The archaeological excavation was halted in 1941 by the United States' entry into World War II. Threats to the Pictographs Natural Elements Moisture seeps through the cave walls, depositing minerals that cover the pictographs. Moisture also erodes the cave's sandstone. Dirt and sediment blow into the cave, obscuring pictographs by sticking to the rocky walls. Vandalism The caves are vulnerable to vandalism by people who do not respect this site or understand its importance. Unintentional Damage Visitors to the park touch the cave walls and track materials in and out of the caves. The pictographs have also been unintentionally damaged by well-meaning efforts to cleanse the cave wall by sandblasting. Rosie note: Excuse me, but what IDIOT thought snadblasting was a good idea? Heh. Both times I wrote snad instead of sand. I left it in the second time. I miss my Semi-Ho! Air Quality Some believe that chemicals in the air from vehicles and industrial activity has hastened the fading of the pictographs. They believe that the rapid change in the pictographs- from the 1930's to the present, as compared to their condition when first discovered, indicates this. Protecting Our Heritage As you can see, the pictographs are disappearing, and protecting them is a challenging task. These pictographs connect us to our heritage. When cultural and historic sites like this are damaged or misused, we lose important links to our past. Protecting the Pictographs Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has taken many steps to try and preserve this resource for future generations. - Soil removed during the 1930's excavations was back-filled to wick moisture away from the back wall. - A sandstone wall was erected to hold the backfill in place, as well as to help stabilize the deteriorating back wall. - Monitoring equipment was installed to measure the movement of water away from the wall. - A stock pond, built many years ago on the cliff above the cave, was drained and is no longer in use.
Viewing the Pictographs Today Looking Back The black horizontal line on the cave wall marks the original level of material that filled the cave when a detailed archaeological excavation took place between 1938 and 1941. During the excavation, over 30,000 artifacts were removed and carefully catalogued. At the time of the excavation, many of the 106 pictographs from the main cave were copied to scale and assigned reference numbers. Notes from the excavation indicate that an overall drawing was created locating the figures on the cave wall, but sadly this drawing has disappeared. Piecing Together the Puzzle While many of the images are faded and barely visible today, the composite image above can help you locate the artwork more easily. You can still see red pigment remains at the extreme left and right sides of the cave, and many figures in the central panel. The composite image was created by Tim Urbaniak of Montana State University - Billings. He digitally photographed a panorama of the cave interior and overlaid figures from the original drawing. The locations of the figures have been verified through historic photographs held by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, private individuals, and the State Historic Preservation Office.
Learning From Artifacts For thousands of years, people used Pictograph Cave as a natural shelter. Along with painted images, they also left behind clues which reveal information about their complex lifestyles - artifacts buried under the cave floor. The layers of artifacts unearthed in Pictograph Cave are divided into four cultural levels - Level I (the oldest level reached, Level II, Level III, and Level IV. These levels provide context for the artifacts and help us understand how the cave was used by different people over time. Pictograph Cave Level IV Human occupations are uncertain. This level produced artifacts similar to Level III, plus pottery fragments. Wooden skewers and a bow were found in both Level III and IV, but those from Level IV were made with metal tools and the ones from Level III were made with stone tools, demonstrating changes in technology. Pictograph Cave Level III Human occupations likely ranged from 3000 to 500 years before present. Many artifacts were found at the third level, including preserved wood and leather. In addition, all of the artifacts found in neighboring Ghost Cave are roughly the same age as the artifacts found at this level in Pictograph Cave. This tells us that the area was used frequently during this time period. Pictograph Cave Level II Human occupations likely ranged from 4500 to 3000 years before present. Very few artifacts were found at this second deepest level. However, there were some projectile points, chopping tools, a bone game piece, and flint knapping tools. The scarcity of artifacts suggests that Pictograph Cave was not used as much during this time.
The Search for Meaning For at least 2000 years, Plains peoples explored meaning in the life and their world by painting images in this cave. Generations later, these pictographs and the artifacts left here continue to evoke intriguing questions about an earlier age. Researchers use many sources to learn about the painted symbols and artifacts found here and their connection to the people of this region. Different fields of study reveal different findings which can be combined to gain a better understanding. Stories passed down through generations of the Crow and other Plains tribes connect to many of these images. Fifteen painted figures illustrate the front view of a man almost entirely obscured by a circular shield. Seven birds are painted inside Pictograph Cave. The image shown here likely represents the thunderbird, a powerful supernatural being.
This is the inside of Pictograph Cave and I'm barely able to see any of the pictographs. This saddens me.
I do see the grouping of red rifles and the vertical lines below and what I think is a fish above to the left.
Click to enlarge and check out the composite image with the digitally photograph panorama of the cave interior and the overlaid figures from the original drawings with my paltry photographs.
We are approaching the undercut known as Middle Cave. There is no evidence of human occupation of this shallow overhang, probably because of its steep sloping floor. Water seeping from the north wall is an environmental force that is partially responsible for forming and enlarging caves.
Ghost Cave Evolution by Erosion The slow and steady force of water over time carved this cave. For many of the hundreds of years that Pictograph Cave was used as living quarters, Ghost Cave stayed empty because of its steeply sloping floor. As bits and pieces of rock broke off the ceiling and dust blew in, enough dirt piled up to make the cave an appealing campsite. The excavation removed much of the floor material, changing the character of the cave once again. But nature is never done and the cave is still a work in progress. Look around and you can see the evidence of continuing erosion. Note the large round boulders, called concretions, that loosen and tumble to the ground as the sandstone around them gradually wears away. Do You Believe In Ghosts? No one knows for sure how Ghost Cave got its name, but some people report seeing strange shapes showing up on photographs taken here. Is it haunted? We don't know. What we do know about the cave comes from archaeological evidence found during the 1937-1941 excavation. Parts of beads, bone tools, bows, and baskets tell us that this was a well-used campsite and perhaps a home to many people in past times. Maybe it's the distant echo of their voices you hear in the wind. Or maybe there are no ghosts here at all. What do you think? Well, Rosie thinks that's bull shit. Maybe I should go back and check my photographs for strange shapes.
The archaeological excavation in the late 1930's revealed that Ghost Cave was a more recent living and work area, between 200 and 500 years ago. Processing activities such as sharpening stone points, shafting arrows, chipping stone tools, and shell working appear to have been dominant uses of Ghost Cave. Numerous shells and fragments were uncovered, suggesting that long-distance travel and trade was common. Members of the archaeological crew stayed inside this cave in 1937, using the cool shelter as means of escaping the summer's heat and as a dry sleeping area
The large boulders that seem to be suspended on the cliff wall are geological oddities known as concretions. Concretions range in size form under an inch in diameter to odd-shaped boulders with diameters of many feet. Their formation began millions of years ago, under a shallow sea that extended into present-day Montana. As small shellfish and plants died and decomposed, their remains left a mineral compound in the sand, which gradually hardened around the different chemical compositions. A horizontal layer of concretions along the cliffs emphasizes a period of time when basic living species were most abundant.
Erosion plays an important role in the formation of caves and the landscape of the rimrocks. These caves exist as a result of erosion factors such as wind, rain, snowmelt, freezing, humidity, temperatures, and exfoliation. Look closely at the sandstone wall and you can see how weathering is causing small layers of rock to disintegrate and fall, thus exposing additional layers of sandstone to erosion. The rock surfaces that have been exposed to weather for a long time are rough-textured and tan in color. Newly exposed surfaces are smoother and slightly orange in color.
Rosie always checks her rock tops (Rock tops. Heh. 12) before climbing up for a photo op. Never know when a rattlesnake might be out there sunning.
Journey Through The Yellowstone River Valley Humans first came to the plains of what is now Montana around 11,000 years ago. The traveled extensively throughout the Yellowstone River Valley area in search of food, shelter, and improved living conditions. People in Montana at this time were hunters and gatherers. They relied on hunting large game animals for survival. Therefore their travel routes followed the movement of roaming herds. People moved around to find food, resources, and shelter, but their movement also brought new opportunities for trade and cultural exchanges with other groups. On the north side of the Yellowstone, Alkali Creek provided easy passage through the rims to the Musselshell and Missouri River country. This valley in front of you was formed by Bitter Creek, normally a small, intermittent stream that at times has flooded and in the past may have flown higher on a regular basis. Where Bitter Creek meets the Yellowstone river is a natural crossing, due to deposits from Bitter Creek and a slowing down of the Yellowstone before it passes through the narrow part of the valley rim rocks. This created a travel route for game and people as well. This valley continued to be used as a connection to Pryor and Fly Creek to the south and east. It was used by Sergeant Pryor with the horses of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806. It served as a stage coach line connecting to the Pryor Creek rail line during the late 1890's, a school house in 1915-1916, and the modern power line you see today (which brings electricity from the Yellowtail Dam on the Big Horn River near Fort Smith, Montana).
Bitter Creek is the creek bed below the parking lot. The intermittent stream provides water for birds and other animals, just as it has for thousands of years. Its water tastes bitter due to high levels of natural minerals and alkali, so it's not ideal water for human consumption.
The Valley View. One of the few breaks in the sandstone cliffs for considerable distance is directly across the Yellowstone River from the mouth of Biter Creek. The area served as one of the best river fords of the Yellowstone River. Imagine being one of the early people from a past era, looking over the Bitter Creek valley to the hills beyond. There would be vast herds of bison, elk, antelope, and deer. Bear, ducks, geese. This area was an important migratory route for both animals and humans during north-south movements. These herds of animals traveled these routes, allowing the normally nomadic hunters to survive at this special place.
This is quite a unique area. It is meaningful today to me, as each part of this ecosystem was important to its early peoples. The significance of its geology, human history, plants, birds, mammals - its place in the grand continuum of life - helps renew our interest in the amazing world around us. There is something I've come to learn on this journey we're on (both a physical and metaphysical journey) - and that is an appreciation of what's gone before us and what has led along this path and to things that are greater than we can imagine.